Colorado’s historic wildfire season could be a sign of things to come

A chimney is all that's left of this home in Grand County after the East Troublesome Fire.
Photo from Eli Pace / Sky-Hi News

FRISCO — A blanket of snow helped to calm wildfires burning across almost a half-million acres throughout the state this weekend, providing much needed relief for firefighters and communities rallying to push back against perhaps the most severe wildfire season in Colorado history.

The reprieve is long overdue. Unseasonably warm and dry conditions throughout the summer and fall shined a bright light on the ever-lengthening wildfire season in Colorado. And officials say it might not be over yet.

As firefighters continue working to douse the still-smoldering forests, fire managers around the state are crossing their fingers that there are no more ignitions with another week of dry conditions in the forecast.

While Colorado has seen its fair share of destructive wildfires in the past, experts say the magnitude, locations and timing of the fires this year might be pointing to something more alarming: that megafires in Colorado are no longer a novel occurrence and that residents need to be prepared for the worst.

“This wildfire season should be a wake-up call to anyone who lives in the wildland-urban interface,” said Phillip Daniels, deputy chief of Colorado’s Wildland Fire Management Section. “If you’re in an area where there are trees near homes and trees near businesses in close proximity, you need to be aware of the danger that is out there. …

“We’ve been building to this point to where it’s a common occurrence to have a fire where you lose not one or 10 homes but 100 or 1,000. It’s bringing what we’ve been talking about for 30 years right into people’s living rooms. This is no longer theory. This is no longer what these crazy wildland folks are talking about. This is a real, exigent problem.”

The age of megafires

In 2002, Colorado residents looked on as the Hayman Fire burned more than 138,000 acres across Douglas, Jefferson, Park and Teller counties, consuming hundreds of structures and forcing thousands to evacuate.

For some residents, the Hayman Fire might have seemed like an anomaly. At the time, it was the only wildfire in Colorado’s history to hit 100,000 acres, the mark typically used to define a megafire. Prior to 2002, the state had never seen another recorded blaze surpass even 30,000 acres. 

But over the past two decades, the state has seen wildfires become more severe as Coloradans continue to reckon with the impacts of climate change, heavy fuel loads and a lack of forest diversity. This year alone, Colorado saw its three largest wildfires: the Cameron Peak Fire (208,000), the East Troublesome Fire (192,560) and the Pine Gulch Fire (139,007), two of which are still burning late into October.

And experts say residents and fire managers need to be prepared for more big fires down the road.  

“What we need to realize is that with our current situation with climate change, these are going to be the new types of fire seasons we see in the future,” said Julie Korb, professor of biology at Fort Lewis College. “With the climate-change-induced droughts we’re seeing, we can expect to see wildfires starting as early as April. And as we’ve seen this year, our fires aren’t going to be out until November.”

A map shows the East Troublesome Fire, which went from 19,086 acres at 10:55 p.m. Oct. 20 (pictured in orange) to 125,602 acres at 12:30 a.m. Oct. 22 (pictured in pink).
Graphic from the Northern Rockies Fire Management Team

Korb pointed to the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County as a prime example of the potential dangers facing mountain communities. She said climate-change-induced droughts — warmer weather combined with a lack of precipitation — is one of the main problems leading to the potential for massive fires at higher elevations.

Historically, higher elevation forests were buffered from extreme wildfires by cooler temperatures and precipitation that allowed for slower drying of fuel sources. But the East Troublesome Fire shows that mountain communities are not immune.

“These forests evolve with stand-replacing fires, so having fires crowning out is normal for higher elevation forests,” Korb said. “What is not normal is having those fires occur this late in the year. And it’s not only that it made a 100,000-acre run in a 24-hour period, it’s when it did it. Basic fire science says temperatures go down and relative humidity goes up at night, which allows our lower-level fuels to retain some moisture.

“What we’re seeing is that it wasn’t behaving as normal wildfires do. It actually exploded in the middle of the night and not only at lower elevations. It was going over the Alpine tundra above 12,000 feet. … We can definitely say that in the past 100 years, this is very novel. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that run this late in the season, particularly in the middle of the night. We’re seeing things that we haven’t even fathomed.”

Korb noted that many scientists felt that the arrival of commonplace megafires in Colorado was only a matter of time but that most people didn’t expect a season like 2020 for at least another three to five years. Much of Colorado is already in an extreme drought and many areas of the Western Slope — including portions of Summit and Grand counties — are currently in an exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Korb said that without good snowfall this winter, the state might again be facing a rough outlook next year.

Turning the dial back on climate change will be a lengthy and involved process. But some are hopeful the large fires across Colorado will help some problems, like heavy fuel loads and a lack of forest diversity, self-correct.

“The trees that mostly burned during the last couple months here in Colorado are all about the same age,” Daniels said. “… We’ve been actively suppressing fires since around 1870. So I think we are going to see more of these fires. But once the newer growth of lodgepole and spruce comes in, there’s a pretty good chance that, for a while, we won’t be impacted by these 100,000-acre fires.”

This Oct. 20 map of Colorado from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of the Western Slope in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.
Graphic from U.S. Drought Monitor

Preparing for the future

Wildfires are healthy for forests, and as Daniels noted, this fire season should help to reduce fuel loads and increase forest diversity in some areas around the state. But the season also resulted in lives lost, hundreds of homes destroyed and expensive suppression costs. And with the ongoing impacts of climate change still posing a threat for more severe wildfires in coming years, officials say Coloradans have to take action.

“I think it’s the new norm, and it’s something those of us in the Western U.S. need to get used to,” said Jeff Berino, former chief at Summit Fire & EMS and fire science instructor at Colorado Mountain College. “The answer is to create fire-adapted communities. We need to learn to live with fire and to adjust to it.”

Experts agree that the best solution for combatting future forest fires is to take a collaborative approach to creating fire-wise communities, a process that requires participation from everyone from individual residents to federal agencies.

It starts with individual homeowners, who should be taking the coming months to make sure their homes are safe by mitigating fire risks on their own properties. But county, state and federal agencies also need to do their part to complete more widespread fuels-mitigation projects, prescribed burns and firebreaks capable of serving as speed bumps for wildfires near towns and residential areas. 

“We can start local and work our way out,” Korb said. “But we also have to realize these fuels are all connected. The East Troublesome Fire started by Grand Lake and moved to Estes Park. We’re all connected, so we can’t just say ‘our community is good.’ We need to make sure we’re managing our landscapes on a broad scale.”

Fire managers are also calling on officials to make better use of fire restrictions to avoid confusion among visitors, and urged residents and visitors to better adhere to those restrictions when they’re in place.

As some experts predict more severe wildfires in the coming years, there might also be a need for more firefighting resources to help keep communities safe.

“Probably the most concerning thing to me as a chief of eight years is that over these last few weeks, we have stretched and strained and taken chances to help our partners,” said Jim Keating, chief at the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District in Breckenridge. “When the East Troublesome Fire blew up, nearly every department in the mountain region really stretched and kept a bare minimum in their district. At the same time, we took an inventory of available resources that could be here within 30 or 45 minutes, and there was nothing. So we knew if a fire broke out here, we had to deal with it with the resources we had.

“The biggest thing, with so many of these fires on federal forests, is upping the abilities of the Forest Service to provide better resources as necessary. That one component is where the most benefit will come from. There’s only so much we can do to prepare locally.”

For officials, the biggest takeaway from the 2020 wildfire season is that community members shouldn’t forget about it or take for granted that things will improve dramatically in the future.

“The message is that we can’t let our guard down, and we cannot get complacent and think that our altitude will save us,” Berino said. “We’ve made huge strides here in Summit County, but this is an annual event and we have to learn and live with wildfires moving forward.”

Read more about wildfires in Flashpoint, a four-part series by the Summit Daily News:

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